See orangutans in the wild in Ketambe, North Sumatra

Mark Levitin | Live the World

November 23, 2022

Gunung Leuser National Park in North Sumatra is one of the best wildlife reserves in Indonesia. It spans almost the entire width of Sumatra and a notable portion of its length, covering 7,927 km2. For a tourist, the indisputable highlight of Gunung Leuser National Park is orangutans.  Most travelers head straight for Bukit Lawang, famous for its orangutan rehabilitation center. This does guarantee you plenty of chances to see the furry hominids, but the experience smacks of a circus, or maybe a contact zoo. The apes are used to humans, and humans are everywhere; Bukit Lawang is quite a hotspot. If you’d rather trust your hunter’s instincts and try to track down the wild orangutans in the jungle, climb overgrown hillocks and strain your ears for the sound of a broken branch, go to Ketambe instead. This is where you can encounter the animals on their own ground – amidst pure nature.

© Mark Levitin

Jungle experience

Calling Ketambe a village may well be an overstatement. It’s a collection of houses and, by now, simple bungalows serving the needs of relatively infrequent travelers strung along the road for a few kilometers. East of the road – it’s a vast jungle, miles, and miles of it. West of it – a river, then some more wilderness. Being one of the largest protected nature reserves in Indonesia, this forest massif hosts numerous species of wildlife. Even Sumatran elephants and Sumatran tigers, both very rare and unlikely to be seen, still survive in the interior. Primates are ubiquitous – aside from the usual macaques, Thomas’ leaf monkeys can often be observed from the road itself. Wild pigs come to scavenge in garbage piles behind the few roadside eateries. Hornbills fly overhead. At night, wooden and bamboo walls of tourist bungalows are penetrated by the sounds of the nocturnal jungle, underlined by the splashing of the river. And most importantly, due to the abundance of wild fruits, this area is the favorite hangout of orangutans.

© Mark Levitin


Getting to Ketambe is relatively straightforward: despite the “Lost World” ambiance, it is located on what serves as a state highway, even if it’s barely wide enough for two cars to pass each other. First, take a bus to Kutacane, a small town in North Sumatra easily accessible from Medan. Next, hop on one of the regular minivans heading north and ask to be dropped in Ketambe. Accommodation is in clusters of bungalows, spread along a 3-km stretch of the road. Most of them are similar: cheap, simple wooden contraptions with electricity and running water. Each bungalow operation is equipped with a small café, serving the usual travelers’ fare for the usual slightly inflated prices. Alternatively, there are a couple of basic local warungs (eateries) by the road. Every such guesthouse can also arrange a guide to help you spot the wildlife, and the owners will not neglect to offer you one. If you have no jungle skills, this may be a good idea; otherwise, two people will always scare wild animals more than just one. Most tourists get to see at least one orangutan within the first couple of days. The nearest ATM is in Kutacane.

© Mark Levitin

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